Hitchhiking in North America has now become a forgotten art, mostly due to our fears and insecurities. It is no longer fashionable to trust strangers. Over time, though, I have developed hitching into a high, if personal, method of travel. Many songs have been written about thumbing the highway, but the sensations and benefits of a successful experience are not easily transferred to the written word.
Discriminating travelers will find the best rides in South America. During a truly memorable trip, I traveled from the town of Pasto in Colombian highlands to the Pacific coast and the mangrove-covered flatlands of Tumaco. I wanted to journey into the Chocó wilderness along the Colombia-Ecuador border. These murky tropical forests, most of them only a few feet above sea level, encompass the continent’s largest unexplored swamp.
But the road from Pasto to the coast is the star of the journey. It drops nearly ten thousand vertical feet from the Andes to the coastal plains, and I had no prior knowledge of its rigors.
I covered most of the trip in the back of an open pick-up truck after two men offered me a lift. The road began in relatively good condition and I sat alone in back near the tailgate as the driver and his buddy raced along the edge of a highland ridge. Now the road forked. In one direction, the blacktop proceeded along more or less the same terrain, and in the other, it climbed a hillock. We took off without hesitation on the second route. The truck gained the top of a small rise. Before us, partially visible through a swirl of low clouds and fog, a deep chasm yawned like a giant set of mandibles. Narrow and dark, the bottom was invisible. Razor-sharp cliffs thrust themselves through the clouds, while tufts of cloud forest pocketed dark ravines. I looked upon a landscape that told of past cataclysms and seismic destruction. Pinnacles of rock hung in space, obscured by thick, gray cascades of water. Bromeliads and ferns clung to precarious holds like weird sentient beings. How could any highway descend into such an abyss? The truck driver wheeled to the right and we careened forward on a track, barely a car-width across, surfaced with crumbling gravel. As the wheels spun in the dirt, I heard the ping of little rocks scraping the undercarriage, an ominous sound. I peered over the edge of the truck’s bed. The road plunged. Far below I glimpsed a distant pathway, clinging to the side of a vertical massif that fell at least five thousand feet.
Insanity! Who would construct a road into this rent in the Earth? The truck began its descent. A series of S-turns brought us to the rim of the great canyon. The cliff had been dynamited, or perhaps hand-chiseled, to afford a space for the roadway that descended the rock wall on a steep gradient. I wondered if the road was a modern work, or if perhaps the original trail dated to pre-Hispanic times.
My musings were brought to an unexpected conclusion. A bulge in the canyon wall appeared and the road, such as it was, vanished around a blind corner. Dead rock overhung the cleared space, barely leaving sufficient room for a car to pass. We had no chance of spotting oncoming traffic, nowhere to get out of the way. The drop on the left side faded into the void. It was so far down I couldn’t even see what lay on the bottom. The air was thick with humidity and the fecund smells of a mad jungle world.
The truck stopped just before the bulge. A small shrine had been dug from the mountain. Placed within, a statue of the Virgin stood mute. Offerings had been draped about her person — a few pieces of cloth, drink-and-drive bottles of aguardiente, and coins. The driver and his companion exited the vehicle and prostrated themselves before Mary’s calm face. This had to be a bad sign. Religious icons and statuary were common enough along the byways of Latin America and other parts of the world. But I had never seen a car stop and the occupants engage in a specific, pleading ritual. Clearly, the men in the truck, macho-looking Latinos not given to public expressions of fear or cowardice, were themselves overwhelmed by the magnitude of the canyon’s power and had decided to take no chances with a capricious fate. That they were ready to openly humble themselves spoke more eloquently of the perils of this road than any words.
The men got back in the truck and we inched around the blind corner. I chanced a peek from the side of the cab but couldn’t see the road. The rear of the pick-up dangled in space, although the wheels still had purchase. It was a dizzying sensation. I slumped inside the cab and leaned over, as if compensating for the excessive heel of a sailboat. But in a minute we turned the corner, picked up speed and headed into the recesses of the canyon. I exhaled, hardly daring to take another gulp of air. It looked as if both the heathen and Catholic gods were satisfied with the Colombians’ prayer offerings. We hadn’t fallen to a horrible death from the lip of the precipice to be devoured by the ancient hungry mountain deities.
A short hour later the road found level ground. We raced to the coast. Along the river that flowed on the valley floor, a tangle of low vines held the banks of the stream firmly against the current. My senses were heightened to a shuddering sensitivity. Adrenaline probably caused the feelings, but I gloried in the knowledge that we had cheated death, my silent partners and I. Transcended into a place that few hitchhikers reach, I felt at one with the canyon, with the jungle, and with the Colombians who had facilitated this astounding ride.
So never mind the insecurities and fear. Sometimes trusting strangers is the best option of all.
NOTE: This travel narrative received the Pacific Northwest Literary Award in 2008 for Best Adult Short Topic